Blog : Remodeling

New Cedar Point Lakefront

New Cedar Point Lakefront

Wander through Williams Bay and follow the lakeshore to the southern tip of Cedar Point Park and you’ll notice something. Something serious. Something obvious. Something unavoidable. You’ll notice, if you’re the noticing sort, considerable and significant gentrification along the lakefront. Old houses have been made new. Renovations have taken old cottages and turned them into new creations, mixing some quaint lake house features with modern day amenities. To the north, new construction abounds. Spec homes, sold. Four million dollars, give or take. And to the south, new construction and more renovations. Shingle style examples of lakeside bliss.  If there is a trend on the lakefront in Williams Bay it’s simple: Buyers are showing a particular affinity for the southern edge of Cedar Point Park. 

Why do you suppose this is? Why are buyers, with a wide lake full of opportunity, focusing on this section of shore to design their version of vacation home perfection? It may have something to do with the views. They might be the best on the entire lake, after all. It might be that westerly exposure, that afternoon sun that lights the pier long after evening has fallen on the western shore of Williams Bay. Or it might be that buyers feel comfortable investing here simply because other buyers have already been doing so. Investment spurs investment, in the event that you didn’t know. 

246 Circle Parkway is a capable lakefront home designed in the cottage style of many of the most desirable Cedar Point homes.  Here you’ll find three bedrooms and two baths, with a detached garage and 92 feet of lake frontage. The pier is brand new and large, two slips worth so you can keep both of your boats, or buy two new boats, either is fine. It’s ideal, as is the positioning of the home along that southwestern shore of Cedar Point.  While this home is easily a proper lakefront home right now and ready for your immediate enjoyment, the real magic lies in the opportunity. Renovate this home, and do so feeling secure in your investment. The end result will be a vacation home equal to the setting, and that setting, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is remarkable.   $2,099,000

Old Lakefront Homes

Old Lakefront Homes

I wanted to think of a better title. Something clever. Something snappy. Maybe something a little less descriptive and a little more simple. But alas, this really is about old lakefront homes. Not regular old homes, mind you, as an old lakefront home with a 70′ lot that wants to sell for $2MM can do so. An old lakefront home anywhere on this lake can, will, and has sold. There’s a market for the old lakefront home, so long as the lot is reasonable and the setting acceptable. But not all old lakefront homes fit into our market without a time consuming, expensive, depressing effort.

Allow me to explain. Pricing is everything on the lake, and if pricing finds an older home on that aforementioned 70 foot lot, the price should be in line with market expectations. Older homes on lots like this will sell for land value. Newer homes on lots like this will sell for a premium. This isn’t the sort of older lakefront home I’m talking about.

Legacy estates exist on Geneva in magnificent numbers. These are the estates that get talked up on boat tours. The sort that people pause in front of on the shore path and frame in their selfies. These are the Wrigley’s and the Ryan’s and the names that no one knows but the names that sometime, some long while ago, made a fortune doing something that people valued. They took that fortune to these shores and established their lakefront space. Their retreat. Their legacy.

These legacy homes traded with some regularity up until the very early 2000s. Since then, I wouldn’t describe any of the sold lakefronts with this title. Was Hillcroft, those 19 acres along Snake Road that sold in 2018, a legacy estate? Well, maybe. The property certainly fit the description, but this is a post about old lakefront homes, not old dirt, and the home itself was no longer P.K. Wrigley’s manse, but instead a modern manse built in the 1980s. Surely no structure built within my lifetime could be adorned with this lofty descriptor.

The only true legacy estate to sell in the last twenty years is Alta Vista, that Van Doren Shaw home on the North Shore that closed in the year 2000 for a paltry $3.45MM. I’d argue that we need a new legacy listing. Something on this lake that has history that even the most modern among us could not bear to tear down. The trend, in case you’ve missed it, is for Lake Geneva to loudly pay homage to history but then, once history comes to market, we just knock it down and build something shiny. I’d love to represent a true legacy estate someday soon. Everything I’ve sold on this lake is nice, but I’d like to set my aim at selling something that can be preserved and restored, rather than demolished and rebuilt. But today isn’t about the legacy estates, just as it isn’t about the 70 foot lot with an old home on it. It’s about old lakefront homes with large lots that fit somewhere in between these two stated examples.

The market, while light on legacy offerings, has been historically heavy on another sort of offering. The old lakefront home on a large lot offering. The sellers know what they want. They want lots of money and they want you to see the value in their home. It was built in the 1980s, after all, or the 1970s for that matter. Maybe even the 1950s or earlier. These are the homes that aren’t new enough to substantially remodel (as would be the case with 1990s or newer construction), and they aren’t old enough to be considered architecturally meaningful. These are the in between. The large lot having, no architectural pedigree sporting, big old lakefront homes.

And the market doesn’t like them. Not. One. Bit. The sellers force feed the market, saying, come look at my big old home on a reasonably large but not overly impressive lot! And the market yawns. That’s because the market either respects a home or it doesn’t, and as soon as it doesn’t, it’s land value, and land value only. The gulf between land value and a number that shows value for the structure is the issue. Sellers fight this. They scratch and they claw and they switch brokers and they beg you to appreciate their Reagan administration raised ranch. It’s big, after all, and the lot is, too. Look at me! I have two Sub-Zero refrigerators from 1981!

This isn’t a new issue for our market, but it is an issue that’s presenting more frequently as prices increase and large lots because more and more rare. Expect this trend to continue, and the battle between buyers and sellers will persist. As for me, I’ll be here, stuck in the middle, wondering if those old Sub-Zeros might work better if we just get the vents vacuumed.

Remodeling Lake Geneva

Remodeling Lake Geneva

I blame HGTV for most of the design abnormalities that I see on a day to day basis. On television, under the direction of some handsome psuedo-contractor, purple walls and gold faucets might look somewhat acceptable. They might even look nice. But in the real world, in this life we live, purple and gold should be reserved for Minnesota Vikings fans.

If you’re building a new house, or remodeling an old one, and you love purple and gold, this is your right. It is, after all, still a quasi-sort-of-free country. If you wish to live in purple and gold, live that way. But, when you live that way, please don’t wish to sell your house. For the rest of us, those of us who move with some frequency and have concern as to the value of our homes, there are some nice rules to live by. A car dealer once told me there are only three colors of car to buy. White, Black, Red. With that in mind, there are certain things to do to a house that will always work to increase your value.

There’s a caveat to this post, and that is that the homes I’m talking about now are entry level lakefront homes and off water lake access homes. In other words, if a home is $1.5MM or so, do these things and make money. If the home is $4.5MM, you’re going to want to ignore most of this post. As an aside, if you’re building a big fancy home and you’d like my opinion as to whether or not you’re making a catastrophic mistake, I am happy to look at plans and selections and offer up my opinion.

But if you’re not building a palace, and you’re remodeling a lake access house that’s worth $500k or so, there are very simple rules to live by. Those rules will help you make money on your purchase, and any remodel that adheres to this formula will be a success. I’ve sold a lot of houses in my life, but I’ve also remodeled and/or built a lot of homes, and I’ve never sold one that didn’t make me money. With that in mind, this:

Flooring. This should always, every time, be wood. Oak, to be exact. Standard width, regular white or red oak. Stain it dark and it’s done. Random width gets expensive. Other woods get expensive. Go oak, stain dark, be done. Do not, however, install pre-finished wood floors. No laminates, no matter how fancy they are or how long the warranty is. Put down a real wood floor, have it finished like a real wood floor, and you’ll be happy. A real wood floor laid this way makes a home feel substantial, and it strengthens iffy floor joists that are prevelent in old cottages here. No more laminate, no more pre-finished, no more engineered wood. Just don’t do it. When you put down the floor, put it everywhere. Upstairs, main level, everywhere. Small houses need consistent flooring, so put wood on all the floors and you’ll instantly upgrade the way your house looks, feels, lives.

Cabinets. Don’t do expensive cabinets. Woodmode is necessary in expensive lakefront houses, but in regular houses Kraftmaid is just as good. Save money on cabinets, because in the sub $1.5MM price range buyers expect real wood, (no thermofoil) and smooth, self closing doors, but that’s it. Save money here, because $50k in kitchen cabinets in a $500k lake access home spells you losing money, every single time.

Appliances. Go bold here. A Viking stove might be $5k. Someotherbrand Stainless stove might be $2500. Spend the extra money and you’ll be rewarded. My secret to remodeling homes for profit is to give a buyer something they don’t expect. A $500k lake access home buyer doesn’t expect a Viking range, so give them one.

Counters. When it doubt, marble. Yes, they wear horribly. Yes, the ones in my house are stained a bit. Yes, I yell at guests when they set anything on the counters. But, marble looks good, it looks right, and it’s at home in lake houses. Use it, love it, yell at guests when they set a pop can on them.

Tile in bathrooms. Marble, again. But in this there is tact. Marble from a fancy store can be prohibitively expensive. Don’t use that marble. Marble from Home Depot or similar might be five bucks a square foot. A marble shower is a beautiful thing, but in this price range no one cares about your herring bone pattern, or your fancy ceiling pattern. That’s why you put the marble in, lay it straight and simple, and when you’re done it’ll look beautiful, expensive. But it won’t be expensive, because you bought it at a big box store and a guy with a rusty truck installed it.

Trim. Walnut trim is expensive. In a lakefront house, I’d like the office that no one will ever use to be walnut paneled. In your lake access house? White painted everything. Think simple but big. Like an offensive lineman. Large trim with a complicated profile is expensive. Large trim with a simple profile is cheap. Use this. Caulk everything, then spray it white. You don’t be disapointed with the look, assuming you’re trying to actually make money on this remodel.

Fireplaces. If you’re building new, add fireplaces. Multiple fireplaces. Everyone expects a fireplace in the living room, so put one there. But a dining room fireplace, or a master bedroom fireplace, or a den fireplace? Pure luxury. Masonry fireplaces can run $30k each, and if you’re building a giant lakefront house, you better give me many of these masonry units. But sub $1.5MM houses can use radiant units that might run $5k each, so use a few of these. If you’re remodeling a lake house that doesn’t have a fireplace, add one or two and thank me later.

Light fixtures. These can’t be cheap but they can’t be expensive. If you’re buying a $3000 chandelier for a home in this price range, you’d do better to light a pile of $20s on fire in your driveway, because at least then you can roast marshmallows. Light fixtures from Restoration Hardware are always good enough, so use them.

That’s enough detail to form a nice baseline for any build or remodel here. One mistake to avoid is to remodel some things and not the others. There was a lakefront sale recently that featured an old house with three sparkly new bathrooms. The kitchen was old. The flooring was carpet. Had the owner of that home remodeled the kitchen and installed hardwood throughout, it might have sold more quickly and for more money. If you’re remodeling an old condo and you put in new floors and you paint but you leave the cheap hollow core doors and the formica kitchen counters, don’t expect any buyers to care about the floors. Be consistent, be smart, and if you have any particular questions about a remodel you’re thinking about, then ask me.